By Martyn Whittock
Historical Writer, Teacher, and Speaker
The 20 years between 1066 and the compilation of Domesday Book, in 1086, saw huge changes in the English countryside. A large group of about 4,500 Anglo-Saxon aristocrats was replaced by a new structure of lordship. At the top of this social pyramid were 180 tenants-in-chief (or barons) who held land directly from the king.
Of these, in the mid-1080s, only two were Anglo-Saxon. Below these were 1,400 medium-sized landowners, of whom about 100 were Anglo-Saxon. Under these were 6,000 sub-tenants (including a substantial number of Anglo-Saxons), many of whom leased land they had previously owned in 1066. There can be no doubt that across the English countryside the message was clear – an occupying power had control of the national resources.
The Laws of the Manor
When historians describe the countryside of the Middle Ages – both before and after 1066 – one word dominates the description; manor. But what was a manor? It was certainly more than simply an estate, or an area of land. The word also describes the way in which these estates were run. The lord of a manor (the overall landowner) had the right to run the land through a manor court administered by his or her officials, and these manor courts both organized the running of the manor and punished those who failed to follow the rules, the fines being paid directly to the lord of the manor. The most powerful lords had rights granted to them by the king which would normally have come within the job description and authority of local royal officials, the sheriffs. These powerful landlords had by the thirteenth century gained the right to have their courts oversee justice regarding theft, crimes punishable by death and the pricing of bread and ale. One such landlord, the bishop of Winchester, also had oversight of a system known asFrankpledge. Dating from before the Norman Conquest, this system was one in which groups of ten households (a tithing) were bound together and held responsible for one another’s behaviour. All males aged over 12 years of age were made members of one of these groups. Each tithing, under a leader known as a tithing-man, was then responsible for producing any man of that tithing suspected of a crime.
Usually, however, manor courts concerned themselves with more mundane matters. They decided the rules of the manor, supervised the election of local officials (e.g. the reeve, who oversaw administration, and the pinder, who rounded up stray cattle), witnessed transfers of land, oversaw payment of heriot – paid to the lord on the death of a tenant (usually the best animal), punished those who let cattle stray on to the lord’s pasture or who assarted (cleared woodland without permission), and fined villeins who refused labour service on the lord’s land (the demesne).
During the period 1160–1216 the system of royal justice known as the Common Law emerged. One of the key principles of this was that only freemen could take complaints about land to the royal courts; villeins were denied this right and had to rely on the manor courts, which were heavily weighted towards the interests of the lord of the manor. It became a common feature in cases in the royal courts for one side to accuse the other of holding land for which they owed labour service. This meant they would have their claims dismissed. In 1224 the royal court refused William of Pilton (Somerset) the right to plead his case because it was found that he owed ploughing and reaping service to his lord and needed a licence from the lord before his daughter, or sister, could marry.1
These manorial estates, which dominate the nature of medieval rural life, were generally divided between so-called demesne land, which was farmed directly for the profit of the lord of the manor, and land either rented for cash or held by villeins in return for unpaid labour on the lord’s demesne land. This was not a new system, although it has often been cited as a consequence of the Norman Conquest. In reality many in the Late Anglo-Saxon countryside were semi-free or unfree, and what the Norman Conquest brought was an intensification of this system rather than its introduction. In this sense the abolition of slavery in England in 1102, by the Statute of Westminster, was largely due to the fact that the bottom end of the English rural population was being so effectively exploited there was little need for this institution. The statute itself, presided over by Anselm the Archbishop of Canterbury, decreed: ‘Let no one hereafter presume to engage in that nefarious trade in which hitherto in England men were usually sold like brute animals.’2
A survey dating from 1120 of a Church estate at Pinbury near Cirencester (Gloucestershire) indicates that here the demesne land came to about 400 acres (161.8 hectares), with the remaining 300 acres (121.4 hectares) being worked by villeins who, in addition to the work required on their own land, were expected to give five days’ unpaid work per week.3 The nuns of Caen, who owned this land, were not alone in making high demands on the villeins of their estate. Earlier, in 1086, Domesday Book records that the estate also had nine slaves. By the 1120s these would have been freed, but it would be interesting to know whether freedom had brought them much reduction in their workload now that they were villeins.
Being forced to provide unpaid labour service was not the only way that villeins were made to pay ‘rent’ for the land they worked. Another way was for some to have to pay a proportion of their crops and animals – known as champart payments. Yet another was to pay money rents. Some peasants had to pay all three types. On the Wiltshire manor of Childehampton in 1315, the villeins owed to Wilton nunnery: 5 shillings a year rent, labour service and each year a cock, three hens and a proportion of the grain harvest. Peasants tended to prefer the second and third forms of payment for the simple reason that it left them free to work only on their own land.4 On top of labour service there were a whole range of ways in which villeins were targeted to pay cash to the lord of the manor: merchets, a payment to allow a daughter to marry; heriot, a death duty; leyrwite, a fine paid (most often by women) for forbidden sexual activity;5 chevages, permission to leave the manor; faldagium, permission to graze animals outside the lord’s fold; entry fines, when taking on a new piece of land; tallages, a land tax; and suit of mill, which forced villeins to use the lord’s mill at his prices. This last demand was very profitable for lords and, around 1300, the Bishop of Durham took 10 per cent of his annual income from this alone.
In 1293 a Worcestershire man drowned himself in the river Severn rather than be forced to take on land, from the Earl of Gloucester, which would have caused him to be considered a villein. The shame was clearly too great to contemplate. In the period 1066–1200, villeins could be sold by their lords and families split up. But, terrible as the suicide of 1293 was, the situation was changing during the thirteenth century. By 1300, although villeins still resented the restrictions placed on them, they should not be thought of as slaves. They were protected by the custom of the manor – arrangements and practices which had developed on an estate and which established the rights of villeins as well as lords. Furthermore, most lords allowed villeins to make wills and buy and sell land – as long as they met their obligations and paid their heriots. It was especially acceptable if villeins could be forced to pay for permission to carry out these transactions. Also, although in theory villains could be evicted from their land if their lord so decided, this rarely happened in practice. Most villeins passed their farms down through the generations, and such villeins might prosper and become wealthier than their ‘free’ neighbours. In addition, as the thirteenth century progressed, a growing number of lords were willing to allow villeins to pay cash in order to be free of specific services. Finally, the amount of labour service owed varied from manor to manor. Tenants on the bishop of Worcester’s estates in 1299 owed the bishop four or five days’ work a week (plus other dues) and were charged three times as much rent for land compared with freemen. On average these villeins paid between 29 per cent and 33 per cent of their net output to the bishop.6 On other estates the load on villeins was much lighter. As with so much in the Middle Ages, one size did not fit all.
Moreover, there were communities who were actively resisting their status as villeins long before the upheavals following the Black Death in the 1350s. In 1280 the peasants of the village of Mickleover (Derbyshire) appealed to the royal courts insisting that since their manor had once been royal land they could not possibly be villeins. This was because villeinage did not exist on crown lands. They lost the case, however. Nevertheless they were not alone in trying to discover legal loopholes through which they could escape their servile status. In 1278 tenants at Halesowen (Shropshire) lost a long legal challenge similar to that at Mickleover. Other legal challenges took place at Mildenhall (Suffolk) in the 1320s and at Ingatestone (Essex) in 1346.7 None succeeded, since behind determined landlords lay the power of their class – royal courts, sheriffs and fines. For a reluctant villein, running away was probably a more effective form of resistance.
Others asserted their ambitions in different ways. Some of the villeins of Peterborough Abbey ignored the legal ban on villeins using personal seals and proudly used them when they made agreements with their lord. Over the generations such wealthy villeins increased in number, and it could come as a nasty shock when some rival or enemy tried to bring them down by proving that their villein status barred them from a legal case or a land transaction. As late as 1460 – when villeinage was long in decline – John Paston of Norfolk found himself accused by an enemy of being descended from villeins. This was a common way of attempting to extort money.
What is clear is that, in 1290 (the peak of the population rise in England in the Middle Ages), about 60 per cent of the rural population on arable land was still technically unfree. However, the distribution was uneven. And, high as this figure was, this still left 40 per cent who were free. In Kent, the western Midlands, the south-west and north-west, there were few villeins. Here lords relied on paid labourers and money rents. In East Anglia and southern Cambridgeshire, manors tended to be relatively small and dominated by large numbers of free smallholders. (Exceptions were the great Church estates of Bury and Ely, which contained a large percentage of unfree tenants.) On the other hand, in areas of Oxfordshire villeins made up 80 per cent of the population. Extensive manors, with large numbers of the unfree, were also common in Huntingdonshire. Overall, villeins were found in highest numbers on the great arable estates of the Midlands. In areas where farmland was being carved out of woodland they were rarer, as here lords wanted to attract new tenants and offered land on more attractive terms.
Overall, therefore, by 1290 probably three in five English tenants were unfree and some of those who have usually been considered free were more restricted than has often been assumed. In the Danelaw (the East Midlands, East Anglia and northern England) a class of small farmers calledsokemen are assumed to have been descended from free Viking colonists in the tenth century and to have guarded their freedoms. There is some truth to this as, even when they owed labour service, it was lighter than that demanded from the average villein. But even sokemen might find themselves classified as unfree by an ambitious landlord.
This last point is a reminder that Church estates included concentrations of both unfree and free communities, depending on where they were located and on their style of organization. The Benedictines, for example, were long-established in England and had many of their estates in arable areas. Here there were many villein tenants. In contrast, the Cistercians, on their great wool-ranges in the north and west, mixed the work amongst both free and unfree labourers. The Templars and Augustinians preferred to rely on money rents from free tenants because these monastic orders tended to own land scattered across a number of villages, which were difficult to organize in the way a great Benedictine house such as Glastonbury might organize its estates.
Trades, Crafts, Agriculture, and Industry
Village communities included a range of craftspeople but these are sometimes strangely invisible. For example, Domesday Book records 6,000 mills but only eight millers and over one million sheep but only ten shepherds. In addition, we must add the smiths and foresters, pigmen and beekeepers, fishermen and eel catchers, keepers of vineyards and salt makers, quarrymen and a host of other craft skills which made the rural economy vibrant and active. As the medieval records increase in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries these roles begin to emerge, but they will always have been there. Many of these people, such as the smiths, carpenters, tilers and masons, were directly employed by the lord of the manor. Of these, some would have been labourers and others skilled craftspeople employing other workers themselves. Surnames derived from occupations – and appearing in records from 1280 to 1340 – indicate crafts and skills found on larger manors. These include: comber, draper, dyer, fuller, tailor, weaver (all textile workers); ironmonger, smith, carpenter, cooper, turner (iron and wood workers); baker, brewer, butcher (food and drink production); bailiff, hayward and woodward (manorial administrators). The countryside was also the location of much of the pottery industry, which after 1100 relocated from towns. Like ale brewing, it was carried out by peasants who used it to diversify their income. Other rural-based industries were quarrying, salt making, glass making, iron working and mining (e.g. lead and coal).
Every village also contained landless labourers, so poor they survived on wages paid for work performed on the land of better-off neighbours. However, these landless labourers made up only a small part of the rural population. Most peasants farmed no more than 30 acres (12.1 hectares) and few employed more than one labourer. The English countryside in the Middle Ages was therefore made up of a large number of relatively small farmers. It was a long way from the kind of society which would emerge after 1500, in which a decreasing number of landowners employed a growing number of landless labourers. In 1851, by contrast, 50 per cent of farms covered between 100 and 300 acres (40.4 to 121.4 hectares) and an average of six landless farmhands were employed by each farm.8 By marrying late and living in nuclear families, peasants in the Middle Ages tried to keep their holdings together and, if possible, to enlarge them from one generation to the next.
Nevertheless, the desire to better themselves was clearly a highly motivating factor in the lives of many peasant farmers. Through manorial records individual life stories give us an insight into what must have been the experiences of many more. In 1277, Hugh Cok was the poorest villager in Codicote (Hertfordshire), but his position started to improve when he rented a stall to sell fish in the market. With the money he earned he bought, or rented, eight small pieces of land. Following this success he rented a strip of land for ten years and another for four years. The income from his land transactions allowed him to buy a further plot and then a new house and an accompanying piece of land. A further plot of land followed, protected by a hedge. Hugh was now rising through the ranks of the village. When the opportunity arose he leased three more plots of land for nine years. After this he leased a further piece of land for twelve years and yet another for three years. Clearly conscious of his growing status, he gained permission to dig a ditch to demarcate one of his land holdings. And his ambitions took him into the brewing trade, since the manorial records show he was fined for brewing bad beer. When Hugh died, in 1306, he left his little empire to Christina, his daughter. In Hugh’s life we can see the kinds of small scale wheeler-dealing which dominated village life in the Middle Ages.9
But where did the majority of this rural population live? By the late eleventh century East Anglia was the most densely populated area of England (with between 15 and 20 people per square mile), followed by the south coast east of the Solent, Kent and the chalk lands of Hampshire, Wiltshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire. In contrast, a density closer to five people per square mile prevailed in Cornwall, the Welsh borders and north of the rivers Humber and Mersey.
Whatever the population density of a region, or its manorial structure, the business of the countryside was making money. In order to achieve this its natural resources were to be efficiently exploited in order to maximize the profit of an estate. There was of course nothing new in this; it is the story of farming since the Neolithic era. What marks out the period around the Norman Conquest is the acceleration in commercial exploitation. This was a social, not a political, phenomenon. It owed much to population increase and little to Norman conquerors, since the economic potential of rural resources was being increasingly exploited from the Middle Anglo-Saxon period onwards. In this sense the strategies we see being adopted around 1100 were only the latest developments in a process which had been gathering pace since 800.
From 800 until 1300 arable farming increased in both its area and its intensity in order to feed a growing population. In this period the English population rose from probably just under 2 million to about 5.5 million. Some estimates put it as high as 6.5 million in 1300.10 This growth increased demand for food and provided opportunities for increased profits from the best-managed estates. The plotting of scatters of pottery, found during field walking at Leckhampstead (Buckinghamshire), shows the dramatic increase in manuring of fields between 1100 and 1400.11 Similarly, the increased quantities of silts which modern archaeologists find in the valleys of the rivers Thames and Nene point to the intensification of ploughing on land which had fallen out of arable cultivation after the end of the Roman period. The erosion which led to this being swept into the river systems reminds us that economic impacts on the environment are by no means a modern phenomenon. This increased production was assisted by improved agricultural techniques, relative political stability, a growing economy in which towns played a vital part, and climatic improvements.
The last point is one which is often overlooked. Scientists know that a historic global cooling, called the ‘Little Ice Age’, lasted from about 1450 to 1850 and coincided with two periods of decreased solar activity. But fluctuations in climate had started before this. The so-called ‘Medieval Warm Period’ was a time of unusually warm weather around 800–1300 and it partially coincided with the peak in solar activity named the ‘Medieval Maximum’ (about 1100–1250). During the Medieval Warm Period wine grapes were grown in southern England. At the same time, Scandinavian settlers took advantage of ice-free seas to colonize Greenland and other outlying lands of the far north and even reached the eastern coast of North America. The fact that this warming occurred alongside population increase and accelerated agricultural production is no coincidence. Neither is the fact that its ending coincided with population fall and economic stagnation at the end of the Middle Ages. This is not to assume, however, that climate was the single determinant. Other factors strongly influenced the commercial success of vineyards, and the time of the greatest extent of medieval vineyards falls outside the Medieval Warm Period. Nevertheless, climate clearly played a great part in extending the growing season for arable and other crops, and in underpinning medieval expansion.
By 1300 the expanding rural economy was closely integrated, with about 1,500 market towns. With somewhere in the region of 10 million sheep producing 40,000 sacks of wool a year for the international market, these market towns were a key feature in the redistribution network that saw wool bought by merchants and shipped abroad. In turn the cash gained stimulated trade within the towns. The English countryside was dynamic and trade was expanding.
Woodland too was a valuable resource, beyond its obvious use for the supply of timber and coppiced wood. Wood ash was produced in industrial quantities and was an ingredient in a range of different manufacturing processes. The liquid leached out from the burnt ash made an alkaline known as lye. When this liquid lye was boiled with lime and evaporated in large iron pots it left a residue known as pot-ash. It is from this that the element potassium takes its name. So-called lye pits are identifiable in a number of medieval woodlands. Lye was used as a cleansing agent and was an ingredient in medieval soap. The residue was used in glass making since, when mixed with sand, it lowers the melting point of the sand and makes the molten liquid easier to handle.12
What should be made clear, though, is that areas designated as ‘forest’ in the Middle Ages were not necessarily areas of extensive woodland. Nor were they necessarily areas of poor agricultural land. The Forests of Wychwood (Oxfordshire), Rockingham (Northamptonshire) and Whittlewood (Buckinghamshire/Northamptonshire) were all areas which had been actively worked in the Roman period – although the New Forest (Hampshire) was an area whose soil reduced its agricultural value compared with nearby landscapes. An area designated as ‘forest’ was, in reality, simply one over which the king, or major lords, had the sole right to keep and to hunt deer. Within these areas the game animals were protected by – and human activity restricted by – Forest Laws. Such areas might include woodland but not exclusively so. In fact, the word forest comes from a Latin word meaning ‘outside’ and applied to the exclusive rights over deer in these areas which were outside usual customs. Since some medieval forests were also located on the edges of ancient Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, or blocks of territory, they may have been originally designated as forest because they were frontier areas as opposed to core territories. What is clear is that many people living in such forest areas resented the restrictions placed on them; indeed William I had apparently cleared areas of the New Forest in order to reduce its population. Crimes against Forest Law were, in the early years after the Conquest, severely punished, although this rapidly gave way to a series of fines designed to deter encroachment, which were paid to the Crown.
Industries such as quarrying, coal mining and iron working were obviously located close to the sources of their raw materials. In some places major industries were created in areas so rural that – after their decline – it is now difficult to imagine the scale of activity once practised there. In the north of England examples of local medieval ironworks can be found in Weardale, which had a large enough output from the 1480s to displace imports from Spain. From the fifteenth century improvements in technology increased output as water was used to power hammers and bellows in the working of iron. Most of the iron produced was wrought iron, which was heated and hammered to drive off impurities and to shape the metal. As blast furnaces were introduced – based on continental models – it became possible to create enough heat to produce cast iron. Blast furnaces were operating in Sussex from the mid-1490s.
Medieval coal mining was carried out using shallow bell-pits which were sunk until they reached a coal seam and then worked outwards. A major source of coal was in the north-east of England. In 1291 there are records of coal sent by sea from Newcastle to Corfe Castle (Dorset), and coal was shipped to London from about 1305. By 1334, on the strength of this trade, Newcastle was the fourth wealthiest town in England after London, Bristol and York. While this position did not last, it is an indication of the importance of coal’s place within the national economy. In 1378 Newcastle shipped an impressive 15,000 tons of coal. By 1508 this had risen to an annual output of 40,000 tons. As demand for coal increased, so bell-pits gave way to more ambitious pillar and stall mines in which larger galleries were opened up and the roof supported by material which was not removed. Such mines were operating in Leicestershire by the late fifteenth century. Deeper mines stretched medieval technology towards its limits but horse-powered pumps were in use around Durham by the 1480s. Recorded productivity shows that individual output at this time was similar to that of mines in the early nineteenth century, before the introduction of the technology made possible by the Industrial Revolution. This is an indication – as in so many areas – of the impressive scale and efficiency of industry in the Middle Ages. It was only the impact of more powerful industrial techniques which allowed the massive leap forward from what was, in many areas, still a fundamentally medieval baseline of efficiency and output.
The quarrying industries of Dorset were also of great importance in the Middle Ages. Purbeck marble from the Isle of Purbeck was in great demand from the thirteenth century, due to its suitability for cathedrals and churches developing Gothic and Early English architectural styles. Archbishop Hugh Walter’s decision to use it to build his Archbishop’s Palace at Canterbury in 1190 caused it to become the material of high fashion. Purbeck marble was used in the interior of churches at Chichester, Lincoln, Wells, Winchester and York. Salisbury Cathedral (built between 1220 and 1258 in the Early English style) made extensive use of the stone. In the thirteenth century the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey allowed Dorset marblers to penetrate the London stone trade. It is significant that the earliest royal effigy in England (that of King John, 1199–1216, at Worcester) was carved in Purbeck Marble.
Life on the Coast and River
Natural resources from rivers, wetland areas and the sea also played a major part in life in the Middle Ages, as a source of food, power and (in the case of wetland areas) fuel and building materials. Fish played a particularly large part in medieval diet due to the frequency of fast days in the Christian calendar. On these days fish could be eaten in place of meat. At Hemington Quarry (Leicestershire) archaeologists have found numerous fish weirs. These consisted of lines of stakes, linked by wattle panels, which funnelled fish into wicker baskets or traps. At the same quarry parallel lines of oak posts and wattle panels were infilled with stones and brushwood to form a probable mill dam, dating from around the 1280s. Part of the housing for a vertical waterwheel was also preserved here.13 Similar fish weirs, but dating from the seventh to the tenth centuries, have been discovered within the intertidal zone of the Blackwater Estuary (Essex), where a complex network of weirs and traps has been mapped. The effort which went into building these structures, in what must have been a very uncomfortable and, at times, dangerous environment, was considerable. One site in the estuary (Collins Creek) contained over 20,000 stakes.14 Similar structures harvested the vast quantities of eels and fish in the network of rivers flowing into the Wash and the Somerset Levels, and in the wetlands around these areas.
Fishing as an occupation was, of course, a feature of life on the coast as well as along rivers and in wetland areas. Archaeological excavation between 1996 and 2006 along Townwall Street, leading to the Eastern Docks at Dover (Kent) has revealed evidence for the fishing community of Dover during the Middle Ages. One of the Cinque Ports (along with Hastings, Hythe, Romney, Sandwich and later joined by Rye and Winchelsea), Dover provided shipping for the Crown and received various rights and privileges in return. Among these was the right of Cinque Port fishing fleets to fish the great herring shoals of the southern North Sea in autumn and to land their catches – and dry their nets – on the beach at Great Yarmouth (Norfolk). This did not go down at all well with the fishermen of Norfolk but the right to profit from this annual herring fair was jealously guarded by the fishermen of Kent and Sussex.
The amount of fish bones and fish hooks found among the domestic rubbish in simple wooden houses make it clear that these houses along Townwall street were the homes of the Dover fishermen. Here fish was processed, stored and eaten in huge quantities, with sampling producing over 83,000 fish bones. This allowed researchers to identify the sea harvest worked from Dover: herring, cod, whiting, conger eel, thornback ray and mackerel. These probably represent fish caught locally in the English Channel during the winter months. Such fishermen occupied the slack time in their year with ferrying to the continent, long-distance trading, sail, rope and net making, boat building and providing ship service for the king. They probably also farmed smallholdings. Evidence from the site also suggests that they wove their own plied yarns for making cordage and fishing nets, along with small-scale metal working. In short, this community of hardworking fishermen turned its hand to a wide range of activities to support itself.15
Food was not the only resource exploited by those living beside water. Around the Wash vast quantities of peat were dug for fuel from carefully managed turbaries (the name for such peat-digging places), and this would have been a similar activity in other wetland areas such as the Somerset Levels and south of the Humber. These areas also provided large amounts of reeds, or lesch, cut for use in thatching. Islands of meadow provided winter fodder for cattle while water levels were controlled by dykes and sluices as these frontier farmers and fishermen laboured to tame and exploit the wild, wet landscape. What, to the modern eye, might seem to have been marshy wilderness would, in reality, have been valuable areas providing a wide range of resources. No wonder the termfish silver was used around Boston (Lincolnshire) in the fourteenth century for the rents paid by tenants who harvested these resources.
Structure of the Medieval Village
Although, as we have seen, the resources to be exploited were varied, the classic image of the medieval village is of a nucleated settlement, focused on its church and set within open fields, in which the arable and meadow resources of the village were divided into strips. Beyond the arable and meadow was the common land on which tenants grazed their animals and woodland was used for timber, coppiced rods for tools and buildings and pannage (an English legal term for the practice of turning out domestic pigs in a wood or forest to feed). In this scenario a village was part of one manor. But this classic image describes only a certain type of medieval village and its landscape, and was not by any means true of the whole of England. It closely fits the arable landscape of the corn-growing belt of the central and west Midlands and extending to the south coast; it could also be found as far north as Durham. In these areas the most regulated open-field farming and the most manorialised areas (with free tenants, plus villeins and labour service) coincided.
In the Midlands perhaps 80 per cent of the available landscape was occupied by this open field arrangement. Such a system of nucleated villages, as opposed to dispersed hamlets and farmsteads, may have had its origins as far back as the ninth and tenth centuries as enterprising lords sought to concentrate human resources in order to more efficiently exploit both arable and pasture at a time of increasing population and the breaking up of large multiple estates. Many of the villages in this landscape show evidence of planning in their layout. At Wharram Percy (Yorkshire), the house plots were carefully laid out and formed two long rows with their fronts on to the main street of the village. The regular appearance of this set-up, plus the very consistent size of the individual house plots, strongly suggests that the village was carefully planned. The available evidence suggests that this was done at some time between the tenth and the twelfth centuries. This seems to have been the case with a large number of villages in the open field landscape.
On the edges of this ‘open field and nucleated village system’ greater variety occurred. In East Anglia, for instance, one village might contain several manors, and the guiding hand of one landlord on a village’s development was replaced by a number of different influences. At Feltwell (Norfolk) there were seven manors. Sometimes one manor had land scattered over several villages. All of this variety had an impact on the way villages and landscapes developed. Field systems became less regular and there might be as many as twelve open fields in contrast to the two, or three, in the classic Midland landscape. Peasant holdings might be grouped in one part of the fields and the pattern was more enclosed. In Kent peasant holdings were grouped, sometimes in hedged fields and sometimes within open fields.
In other parts of England the variety was even more pronounced. The landscape was very different in the far north and the north-west. Here higher rainfall and a more rugged landscape encouraged a pattern of more scattered, smaller, settlements and pastoral farming. A region dominated by free tenants, who paid light rents, it was very different from the classic Midland landscape and manor. In Devon and Cornwall there were fewer open fields and peasant farms were hedged and enclosed, giving the characteristic high banked Devon hedgerows. A large manor might include several different hamlets (vills or townships). About 35 per cent of the land here was held by free tenants.
Historians and archaeologists no longer accept the once-prevalent view that peasant housing was flimsy and poorly constructed. In fact the evidence suggests that it was timber framed and designed to last for several generations. There has been much study of thetofts (house sites) and crofts (the small enclosed field or pasture associated with a toft) from medieval villages. Two main forms seem to have existed. Within northern and western England the pastoral economies, based on cattle rearing, accompanied longhouses. These were rectangular buildings split between an animal byre and a living area for people. Over time upper chambers were sometimes added to the living space and, during the fifteenth century, chimneys were often built. In southern and eastern England the hall,or courtyard farm, predominated, which consisted of a house with separate farm buildings and barns. Sometimes these were placed around a central space called a crew yard. After the late fourteenth century a large number of these houses were rebuilt, with greater height and more first-floor accommodation. This provided more privacy and more space for live-in servants separated from the family. Poorer members of the village community, however, almost certainly lived in less substantial and more squalid housing. When manor records record cottages let at an annual rent of 6 pence, it was probably these which were being referred to.
The larger of these crofts were usually arranged with a narrow end facing the village street and the croft running back from this, behind the toft. In a number of cases a back lane offered further access to the property. Where a village was occupied over centuries, these streets and lanes could be worn down into substantial hollow-ways and these can still be traced between the rectangular crofts on deserted medieval village (DMV) sites in the modern landscape. The size of a plot varied with the social status of its occupying family unit. The similarity of these so-called plot-plans across a number of villages is clear evidence for the planning out of villages by medieval lords. Exactly when this happened varied from place to place. In some areas it was a product of later Anglo-Saxon reorganization of the landscape in the tenth century; in other areas it was a product of enterprising lords seeking to maximize output from their estates in the century after 1200. Work at Wick Dive, Whittlebury and Lillingstone Dayrell (on the Buckinghamshire/Northamptonshire border) appears to confirm this approximate date for planned extensions to existing villages from the early twelfth century.16 This recent study of Late Medieval manorial centres within this area of the Whittlewood Forest has shown a number of instances where the expansion of a lord’s base in the mid-thirteenth century cleared away the earlier peasant tofts to make way for the new buildings. In addition to the lord’s residence there would be storage buildings, mills, dovecotes, byres, malthouses, brewhouses and bakehouses. In some cases watermills and windmills might also be itemized in accounts.17
The fashion for moated manor sites increased in the thirteenth century in lowland eastern England. Essex has more than any other English county. Some of these were constructed with drainage in mind; others were designed largely for show – to display the wealth of their gentry owners. From the fifteenth century, manor houses became larger but still retained the hall-centred plan of an earlier period. This allowed for more rooms for servants and provided additional quarters to give more privacy to the lord of the manor and family. These rooms were eventually provided with their own fireplaces and chimneys. This shift from a central hearth in the hall, as the focus for the life of the manor house, signals a real change in relationships and is about much more than just a change in architecture. These developments were particularly pronounced in the wealthier wool-producing areas and surviving examples, such as Great Chalfield (Wiltshire), reveal just how grand a gentry house could be on the back of the wool trade.
Changes in the Countryside
The rural system, though varied and complex, faced some of its greatest challenges in the fourteenth century. Population increase until the mid-fourteenth century put great pressure on resources in the countryside. This led to large reclamation projects in areas of fen and marshland. In Romney Marsh, Kent, this probably began in the early twelfth century when the land was used for grazing. However, by about 1200 this gave way to more intensive cultivation and occupation. This took the form of pioneering farmsteads pushing on to reclaimed land. During the fourteenth century the number of farmsteads declined and this depopulation continued into the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Many of the medieval drainage ditches were infilled at this time. It was a period of settlement retreat.
A number of serious problems afflicted the English countryside at this time. A bad harvest in 1314 was followed by two years of wet weather and crop failure. Another disastrous harvest coincided with disease of cattle and sheep in 1319–21. Wheat and barley prices rose by 300 per cent and starvation became widespread. Some sold their land to buy food while others turned to crime. Many manorial records indicate death rates running at up to 15 per cent of the local population. After 1322 the weather improved and population began to recover – but then, in 1348, the Black Death arrived at Melcombe Regis in Dorset. Taxation figures for 1377 suggest that the population of England had fallen to about 2.5 million, and it would remain at about this level until 1520. This was a human catastrophe – but what was the impact on the rural economy?
In fenland areas of East Anglia, the Sussex and Kent marshes and around the Thames Estuary campaigns of land reclamation slowed down, stopping in many areas. Increased flooding due to climate change accelerated this reversal. A similar retreat from marginal land took place in Cornwall, Devon and Northumberland. Nowhere is this retreat from areas of former activity more obvious than in the case of DMVs. There are at least 3,000 DMVs in England. In a large number of Midland areas former ploughland reverted to pasture leaving the characteristic humps and bumps of deserted crofts and tofts and the corduroy pattern of ridge and furrow. It is common to suggest that these were places in which the plague had wiped out virtually all inhabitants. In fact the DMVs of England occurred over many centuries and for complex and particular reasons peculiar to each site and its economy. Many that failed were already economically marginal units, and many failed only after a long period of decline. Many, no doubt, had run perilously short of the resources such as woodland and pasture which were needed to act as insurance in case of crop failures in the open arable fields.
Nevertheless, the cycles of infectious diseases after 1348 (with the accompanying fall in population) clearly had a significant and negative effect on such communities even if desertion was not solely due to the Black Death. The famous historian of the English countryside, W.G. Hoskins, calculated that in Leicestershire about 18 per cent of villages were abandoned between 1450 and the early seventeenth century. Other settlements were reduced in size. The Whittlewood Forest study found that ‘After 1350 signs of contraction can be found in all the villages and hamlets that have been investigated’.18 What is clear is that the pattern of desertion and shrinkage, though widespread, is not uniform. Some villages grew, no doubt as a result of migration from those settlements which were in decline. In other words there were ‘winners’ as well as ‘losers’ in the unsettled period following the trauma of the mid-fourteenth century.
Challenge to the Status Quo
What seems certain is that the Black Death led to a rise in percapita wealth through a shortage of labour and – consequently – rising wages. The Bishop of Winchester found that the price of his wheat rose by 6 per cent in the period 1360 to 1380 but, at the same time, the wages he paid his labourers rose by 69 per cent.19 Standards of living rose as a result. However, this was eroded by the cost of war with France. The rise in prosperity and the ability to challenge a system which had attempted to keep wages down and enforce the continuation of villeinage led to social unrest by men and women who had a new sense of empowerment. These protests against villeinage had occurred since the thirteenth century but they accelerated after the Black Death. In some areas peasants hired lawyers to argue that their particular manor had once been a royal estate, on which all labourers were free from villeinage. Contemporaries watched the changes with excitement, or horror, depending on their prejudices. The poet Langland, in Piers Plowman, echoed the view of the wealthy and powerful when he unkindly suggested that ‘When hunger was their master none complained’, with the clear implication that what was needed was a dose of famine to put such pretentious villeins in their places.
Attempts by the authorities to arrest these developments could not stop the tide of change. However, at the time the efforts to protect the status quo were seen in a number of areas. The Ordinance of Labourers in 1349 and the Statute of Labourers in 1351 made it illegal to demand pay higher than that given before 1348. This legislation banned alms giving to beggars and made it a criminal offence for a labourer to refuse a work contract if offered. This aimed to prevent workers from negotiating short-term contracts and then leaving for a better-paid job if the first contract was not renewed on terms the labourer thought were favourable. Justices of the Peace (selected from the landowning knightly class) were empowered to enforce this legislation which, of course, worked to their economic advantage. It was blatant class legislation. Similarly, in 1363, sumptuary lawswere passed, which attempted to define what different classes of society were allowed to wear. It was clear that people should not merely know their social rank, they should look it too. Such legislation was, of course, bound to fail and was indicative of a government trying to arrest processes beyond its control.
In the summer of 1381 the simmering resentment boiled over into the Peasants’ Revolt. As with so much of the Middle Ages this was not what it seemed. It was by no means confined to peasants but involved a wide range of groups: villeins, hedge-priests (priests unfrocked for breaking Church laws), better-off townspeople and rival members of London guilds. The key factor which motivated most of these different groups was resentment at legal and social restrictions which hampered their economic activities, freedoms and ambitions. They were less ‘desperate and starving’ and more ‘ambitious and frustrated’. The chronicler Thomas Walsingham, in his Historia Anglicana, later recorded a speech supposed to have been made by the hedge-priest John Ball. In part of it he spoke the famous words:
When Adam delved [dug], and Eve span, who was then a gentleman? From the beginning all men were created equal by nature, for servitude was introduced by the unjust and evil oppression of men, against the will of God, who, if it had pleased Him to create serfs, surely in the beginning of the world would have appointed who should be a serf and who a lord.20
The trigger event causing the revolt was the activities of tax commissioners pursuing evaders of the heaviest of three recent poll taxes (1377, 1379 and 1381). This one was set at 3 groats each (12 pennies, or one shilling) which would be about a week’s wages for a labourer. All those over the age of 15 were to pay. Contemporary chroniclers mention two petitions made in response to the last of these poll taxes. One called for freedom from serfdom and a standard rent of 4 pence per acre. The second called for abolition of villeinage and lordship and the redistribution of Church property. Passive resistance grew, and somewhere in the region of 450,000 people who had paid tax in 1377 evaded it in 1381.
Later demands of the rebels pointed up many of the features of English life which so antagonized ordinary people: an end to villeinage; a ceiling of 4 pence an acre rent on land; opening up of all markets to traders who would no longer have to pay for the right to sell their goods; abolition of outlawry; all rabbit warrens, fisheries, deer parks and woods to become common property. But the key to understanding the explosion of violence lies in the sense of outrage against the rising level of taxation, accusations of government incompetence and failures in the war against France. Between 1371 and 1381 the government tax burden stood at £380,000 and over half of this had been raised in the four years since 1377. Contemporary accounts suggest that many rebels claimed they were acting on behalf of the young king to save him – and them – from his ‘corrupt advisers’.
The violence broke out in Essex and Kent, and these outbreaks may have been coordinated. Dissatisfied activists had been encouraging action across a wide area of eastern England. Some of these were hedge-priests, such as John Ball, who had already been punished in the Church courts for preaching the doctrines of John Wycliffe and for his belief in social equality. Ball was thrown into prison on three occasions and also appears to have been excommunicated. He was in the archbishop of Canterbury’s prison, at Maidstone, when he was released by the Kentish rebels. Such people had a background in social radicalism and were sparks amongst dry kindling. To what extent there was organization is now hard to assess, but there are clues. The revolt was probably deliberately coincided to fall on the Corpus Christi celebrations (Thursday 13 June 1381), traditionally a day of community activities. And near-contemporary chroniclers refer to cryptic notes, which appear to contain coded references to insurrection, passed between rebellious groups.
Once the revolt exploded into violence, groups rapidly made contact with each other. As the unrest spread it certainly began to show signs of rudimentary coordination, even if only of allied rebels with similar aims. The centralized nature of England gave the protesters an obvious target for their actions: the young king, Richard II, and his royal council. There was particular antagonism towards the king’s uncle, John of Gaunt, and officials associated with the latest poll tax. In addition, when the rebels entered London they were assisted by fishmongers engaged in inter-guild disputes with more prosperous Londoners.
The revolt collapsed when, during a tense stand-off with the young king at Smithfield, the Mayor of London, Walworth, stabbed Wat Tyler the rebel leader. Seizing the opportunity, Richard led the leaderless rebels away and they were swiftly surrounded by armed troops. A few days later the king withdrew promises to end villeinage made under duress. It seemed that the forces of reaction had triumphed. Shortly after this John Ball was arrested in Coventry and executed in the presence of the 14-year-old king.
One clear target of the 1381 revolt had been the villeinage system. But villeinage was already crumbling due to economic and demographic pressures which no amount of resistance could hold back. The increased economic ‘muscle’ of peasants after the Black Death meant they could demand higher wages whatever the Statute of Labourers vainly demanded. And manorial lords, desperate to get a return from their land, would accept incoming labour without asking too many questions about whether these were free farmers or villeins escaping the constraints of a neighbouring manor. This had been happening even before the traumas of the 1350s. As early as 1305 over 10 per cent of the tenants in Stoneleigh (Worcestershire) had originated outside the shire. It is unknown how many were villeins on the run.
Even in the years before the disruptions of the mid-fourteenth century some landowners – keen to increase their cash flow – were willing to accept cash payments instead of villein services. This, of course, was in a period when labour was relatively plentiful. Evidence from counties as far apart as Norfolk and Somerset show villeins paying chevage payments, allowing them to live off their native manor: the first step towards escaping villein status entirely. From East Anglia large numbers of immigrants entered London, taking their dialect of English with them and influencing the emerging London version of Middle English. Furthermore, during the late thirteenth century, land was in such short supply (due to population increase) that freemen were willing to take on land which had labour services attached. Another complication was provided by the marriage of free and unfree, which was by no means an uncommon arrangement.
After the Black Death the tide flowed ever more strongly against villeinage. In addition, as traditional social restraints weakened, women seem to have used the opportunity to seek greater economic freedom, often in towns. In Northampton in 1377, 30 per cent of the population was made up of servants and many of them were women. Most of these were probably first-generation town dwellers who had escaped the more restrictive atmosphere of the countryside.
The end of villeinage was also assisted by the increase in the amount of coins available in the English medieval economy from the late fourteenth century. After all, labour service could be replaced by paid labour and the leasing out of demesne land for cash only if sufficient coins were available. When coinage increased in quantity, as it did in the fifteenth century, it coincided with increasing peasant agitation following the Black Death. This increased economic strength led to the loosening of a system which was centuries old. As it declined, a whole outlook passed with it. No longer would manor rolls refer to some of their tenants as ‘in bondage’. Instead, they were now simply tenants holding their land according to the custom of the manor and paying cash rents. But the long echo of past social structures would not die away so quickly. Medieval legal terms for unfree peasants still remain in modern English as negative descriptive terms: villain (from villein), churlish (from ceorl) and boorish (from gebur).
During the fifteenth century the countryside continued to experience considerable turbulence. From 1376 grain prices began a downward spiral which would last for almost the rest of the Middle Ages. Between 1430 and 1470 there was a severe agricultural depression and in 1438–39, after three wet summers, a terrible famine occurred. Diseases of cattle and sheep reduced the national herd. A depressed population and low demand meant that grain prices continued to fall after 1440; wool and cloth exports also slumped around 1450. The problems in the cloth trade were particularly acute between 1448 and 1471. Protests in a number of rural areas demanded reduction in land rents, and social unrest was reported in many urban centres. Labour shortages, rising wage bills and thefalling price of corn encouraged landlords to reduce their outgoings and enlarge profits by turning to increased wool production and combining (or ‘enclosing’) landholdings (often accompanied by ejecting peasant farmers as a result of these ‘enclosures’). The priest John Rous (died 1491) listed 60 villages in his native Warwickshire that he personally knew to have been abandoned as a result of such actions. Thomas More, in 1516, wrote in his book Utopia that sheep had ‘developed a raging appetite, and turned into man-eaters. Fields, houses, towns, everything goes down their throats.’21 More’s bitter irony arose from the same concerns which had earlier led Rous to call down God’s anger on the landlords he held responsible for rural depopulation. In some areas the retreat from arable farming led to increased exploitation of income from fish farming and rabbit warrens.
Yet the later fifteenth century saw the continuation of the rise in overall standards of living which had marked the later fourteenth century. Real wages continued to increase and villeinage had virtually disappeared. As a result, land was available without the constraints which had restricted freedoms before the 1350s. The purchasing power of the wages of those engaged in agriculture increased by 100 per cent in the period 1350–1450. Better-off farmers – the yeomen – exploited the opportunities presented to them and prospered, and the rural cloth trade increased the prosperity of country areas in East Anglia, the Cotswolds and the West Country. There was therefore, unsurprisingly, no uniform experience in the countryside by 1500. The opportunities and aspirations of the wealthier yeomen contrasted with the frustrations of the victims of enclosure. And in the tensions between these two experiences lay the forces of change which would help take the English countryside out of the Middle Ages in the following half-century.
- Rigby, S.H., English Society in the Later Middle Ages: Class, Status and Gender, Macmillan, 1995, p.28.
- Meager, David, ‘Slavery in Europe from the End of the Roman Empire’, Cross†Way, Winter 2007, no.103.
- Dyer, Christopher, The Origins of the Medieval Economy, c.850–c.1100, Yale University Press, 2002, pp.92–4.
- Rigby, op. cit., p.22.
- Jones, E.D., ‘The Medieval Leyrwite: A Historical Note on Female Fornication’, The English Historical Review, vol.107, no.425 (Oct. 1992), pp.945–53.
- Dyer, Christopher, Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages, Social Change in England c.1200–1520, Cambridge University Press, 1989, pp.110–40.
- Rigby, op. cit., pp.105–7.
- Ibid., p.24.
- Wood, Michael, Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England, BBC Publications, 1986, pp.191–2.
- Miller, E. & Hatcher, J., Medieval England: rural society and economic change 1086–1348, Longman, 1985 edn, pp.28–9.
- Jones, Richard & Page, Mark, Medieval Villages in an English Landscape: Beginnings and Ends, Windgather Press, 2006, p.137, Fig.50.
- Bathe, Graham & Greenaway, Dick, ‘A Lye Pit in Savernake’, Wiltshire Archaeological and Natural History Magazine, vol.100, 2007, pp.207–10.
- Knight, David & Vyner, Blaise, ‘Quarry harvest,’ British Archaeology, May–June 2007, no.94, pp.16–19.
- Dix, J., Bull, J. & Lenham J., ‘Saxon Fish Weirs in the Blackwater Estuary, Essex’, www.arch.soton.ac.uk/Research/justin/saxon%20fisheries.html, 1999.
- Parfitt, Keith & Corke, Barry, ‘Excavating Dover’s Medieval Seafarers’, British Archaeology, May–June 2007, no.94, pp.32–7.
- Jones, Richard & Page, Mark, op. cit, pp.192–3.
- Ibid., p.183.
- Ibid., p.204.
- Rigby, op. cit., p.115.
- Dobson, R.B., The Peasants revolt of 1381, Pitman, 1970, pp.373–5.
- More, Thomas, Utopia, translated by Turner, Paul, Penguin Books, 1965, p.46.
Excerpt from A Brief History of Life in the Middle Ages: A Social History of Medieval England (Chapter 2), by Martyn Whittock (Robinson Publishing, 2009), published under fair use for educational purposes.